“The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the voice thereof, but knowest not whence it cometh and whither it goeth; so is every one that is born of the Spirit” (John iii. 8).
This notable saying of the Great Teacher is, I think, nowhere more strikingly fulfilled that in the experience of the minister of the Word who habitually seeks for direct Divine guidance in his work. The question that is continually pressing for solution, not only at the commencement but throughout our service is, whether the voice we hear is indeed the voice of the Spirit or one of the “many other voices that are in the world.” And it is this that makes our ministry so emphatically a “work of faith” from beginning to end.
It must, I think, be a matter of great interest to some to learn in what way the first call to service usually presents itself. Such things are amongst the heart’s most sacred memories: deep experiences hidden from all but ourselves and our gracious God. It is only in the hope that the recital may find a welcome, perhaps, in the heart of some dear younger brother, and be helpful to him, that I am willing to tell the simple story of my own first call.
It is not to be supposed that all are dealt with alike. Differences of disposition and of surroundings will have led to diversities of treatment, though it is the “same Spirit” that is at work. Some may have had early impressions that in after years they would be led into the service of the Gospel, and the time of waiting may have been long. To others the Master’s intimation has come suddenly, and the preparation for it almost simultaneously.
In my own case there had been much preparatory work – and indeed, there was great need of it – but I knew not at the time what it meant, or whither it was tending. So that when one First-day morning, in a pretty large meeting, there was presented vividly to my thoughts a passage of Scripture, with a great pressure on me to rise and repeat it, there came with it a shock of almost overwhelming surprise. I pleaded excuses – my unfitness, my slowness of speech, the offence I should give to some to whom I believed the words would sound like a personal warning. The meeting held long, but at last broke up; and then I came out agitated with grief and remorse. I had refused to render this little service to Him who had died for me! I had been unfaithful, both to Him and to those to whom the message might have been timely!
The secret story of succeeding months can be only briefly told. It was a time at first of lonely sorrow; then of seeking forgiveness; after that of slow growth into a willingness to submit if the call should be repeated. As weeks passed on, this was changed into an earnest desire, an eager prayer, that another opportunity might be given.
There was a long time of waiting in poverty of soul; and when at last another visitation, similar in manner to the first, came to me at a morning meeting, courage and faith again failed, and I kept silence! The interval between the morning and evening meetings was spent in prayer; and when the evening congregation gathered, the Lord helped me to rise and deliver my short message. A subsequent brief address from a minister present confirmed it, and I went home glad of heart, praising the blessed Master with the words, “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me.” I had learnt a lesson in those days of hunger and sorrow, never to be forgotten. The call was repeated week after week, and has never since been willingly turned away from; though sometimes circumstances beyond my control have kept me silent, when a message has been given me to deliver.
As obedience was rendered, the gift increased. Instead of merely repeating word for word as from memory what had been given me, I was entrusted with a simple text or a single thought, and had to rise with it, not knowing what was to follow. Sentence by sentence opened as I stood; words came as they were wanted; my natural slowness of speech gave place to a fair amount of readiness of utterance; and I learned the indescribable joy of standing up at the dear Master’s bidding, close beside Him, taking the words as He gave them, and speaking them in His name.
As the willing servant of a human master, grown accustomed to his work and to his master’s ways, needs not from day to day to be urged and minutely directed to his duties, but learns to obey a simple word or a look, so the servant of Christ, in whatever department of labour he may be engaged for Him, learns to be quick in perceiving the Master’s will, and to go forward with ready alacrity under His direction.
With the preacher, in whose department there is especial need for renewed anointing for every act of service, in addition to the general commission, the question already alluded to will arise again and again. The voice that speaks to us may be for our own instruction merely, and not for the congregation; the thought that presents itself may spring from the workings of our own minds, or be the mere reflection of some passage in our recent reading; or it may be prompted by some occurrence that has come to our knowledge. How are we to distinguish the Master’s voice amidst these? Prayer must be the faithful servant’s resource – prayer for present, momentary guidance – absolute self-surrender to the doing of God’s will. The test may sometimes be applied: “Is this word that stirs my heart a word that honours Christ?” “Does it point to Him?” If it does, let it be spoken. If it does not, if it points away from Him, it never can be right to utter it in His name.
There are special dangers besetting those who love the work, and are gifted with a ready utterance: the desire that something should be said; a feeling of restlessness if periods of silence are prolonged; a zealous desire that some particular truth should be enlarged upon, or some error combated. A passage in our “Book of Discipline,” chapter iv., comes into view in this connection:– “A clear apprehension of Scripture doctrine, or a heart enlarged in love to others, are not of themselves sufficient or this work; ... and except there be a sense of the renewed putting forth and quickening influence of the Holy Spirit, we believe it to be utterly unsafe to move in this office.”
For many years the writer has found it to be a safe rule never to attempt to address a meeting for worship unless able to answer in the affirmative two questions, viz.: (1) Am I willing to speak on this subject if it be the Lord’s will? and (2) Am I equally willing to remain silent if His will be so? If the attitude of mind is clearly reached that can answer “Yes” to both these questions, then with the prayer “Lord, help me,” the servant commits himself to the guidance that may be given. The feeling of his own incompetency to work out the theme is almost invariably present, but is not only not allowed to stand in the way of obedience, but has come to be regarded in the light of an encouragement to proceed.
The writer has always regarded public prayer as a particularly solemn act, not to be entered upon without a clear sense of Divine influence. When it is remembered that the speaker in such an exercise is addressing the Almighty Searcher of Hearts in the name of others as well as himself, and that it is impossible for him to know what is passing in the minds of others, the need of Divine guidance is manifest.
At the same time, it must not be forgotten that vocal prayer is an important part of worship, and that silent prayer does not honour God in the same way and to the same degree that spoken prayer does. We serve God in serving men in His name; and we have the highest encouragement to vocal utterance in prayer in the example of our blessed Lord Himself when He said in prayer (John xii. 42), “Because of the multitude which standeth around I said it, that they may believe that Thou didst send Me.”
Joseph John Dymond
Ilkley, August, 1892.
Part 12 of this series is here.